A Life in Middle East Studies
Roger Owen’s first encounter with the Middle East was as a young soldier during his national military service in Cyprus from 1955-6. During this time, he visited Cairo, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Beirut before deciding to spend the rest of his academic and professional life at Oxford and Harvard Universities, where he taught, studied, made friends and tried to understand the region via its politics, economic life, history and popular culture. Providentially, he also decided to keep an almost daily journal recording his thoughts and feelings, as well as being fortunate to be asked to write a regular op-ed column for the London- and then Beirut-based Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat beginning in 1986. Hence this Memoir, an attempt to record and to make sense of a life spent studying a culture very different from that of his own.
One day in the summer of 1955, I heard a new and unusual sound. As part of my National (Military) Service, I was riding in a small open-top army vehicle at the head of a slow-moving convoy of signals vehicles heading from our Colchester headquarters to the Stamford Training Area in Suffolk. My unit provided the wireless and telegraph communications for the umpires who, every two weeks or so, monitored the mock battles fought there by members of the British Territorial Army, preparing them for a war with the Soviet Union that everyone prayed would never come. It was boring and often irritating work: the snail-like speed along narrow roads with high hedges on both sides, the pitching of tents in the latrine-infested clearing assigned to us, followed by the lack of sleep involved in making sure that the networks remained up and running for the thirty-six hours or so of the exercise. On this trip though, one of our signalmen, quite against the rules, switched his radio set to a BBC channel playing a hit song of the moment: “Stranger in Paradise” from the movie Kismet. The music was adapted from Alexander Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances with their surging sense of a caravan setting off to the east, in bright mimicry of the wild sounds found in the land of the Muslim Cossacks and Tartars just opening up to Russian imperial expansion across the Central Asian steppes. It seemed like an urgent call, a tantalizing promise of experiences so much more exciting than anything I could possibly find in the rather stuffy England of the Churchill/Eden Conservative government that had replaced the reformist Labor government in 1951.
Of course, this was not my first encounter with notions of the far-away and the exotic that, some years later, were to be lumped together under the general title of “Orientalism”—a totalizing as well as patronizing approach to the East that I was later to do my best to undermine. Like any young English boy of my age and class, I had been exposed to a series of films and stories full of wicked viziers, captive princesses, magic lamps, and flying carpets. These included an exciting World War II Soviet film called The Firebird and Michael Powell’s mesmerizing The Thief of Bagdad, which contained practically every magical moment of the Arabian Nights, including an evil genie, a monster spider, and a mechanical horse. Later, after I had begun to read about T. E. Lawrence, I was even more excited by the idea of the desert, something I really took in for the first time when I saw the Korda brothers’ spectacular version of The Four Feathers, which was filmed in Sudan and Egypt and ended with hundreds of soldiers fighting it out on horses and camels on a sandy plain across the Nile from Khartoum. My fascination with Eastern places increased again later, while I was living outside New York after my father had gone to work for the new United Nations in 1946, and where I learned something of the harsh realities of the Jewish insurgency against the British in Palestine, puzzling over new words like Kol Yisrael (Voice of Israel) and Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Military Organization).